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Friday Column: Real Connections

James Wood interviewed in the Kenyon Review.

I then began to think of Smith’s novel in relation to a number of other large books: Underworld by Don DeLillo, Pynchon’s recent book Mason and Dixon, David Foster Wallace’s large book Infinite Jest, and so on. Was there some kind of genre here in which the cartoonish was displacing the real? In which the machinery of plot was also blocking out in some way a greater simplicity? I also thought perhaps there was an interesting borrowing from Dickens: It seems to me that if you look at a book like Underworld, it is in fact a sort of quite old-fashioned social novel like Bleak House–it tries to account for the connectedness of society at various levels. But, and here was the thing that struck me, strongly in relation to DeLillo, perhaps less acutely in relation to Smith, was that the connectedness was entirely conceptual. It was asserted by DeLillo and it exists on the level of paranoia and ideology and so on. “This is how we will account for the last fifty years of American life.” There was no human connectedness at all. There were lots of different characters; none of them had any real life with each other. The really striking difference from Dickens, say.

I can’t possibly even begin to agree with Wood’s take on DeLillo. To say none of DeLillo’s characters had any real life with each other . . . my God. What book did he read?

I’m not quite sure what Wood means by "the connectedness was entirely conceptual." I’ve never actually seen a physical connection between two individuals (except, perhaps, in cases of conjoined twins), so I’d have to assume that all connections between individuals are "conceptual." Sure, some you can feel, like when you see a movie and the two leads are said to have chemistry, but I think that if that’s what Wood is looking for in DeLillo, he’s misreading him.

DeLillo doesn’t strive to make you feel the connections between individuals, because that’s not the way he thinks individuals connect. His novels see the world in terms of meshing systems, paranoia and ideology being two of them. This may not be satisfying to what Wood wants to see in a novel, but–sorry–it’s true to reality.

I think this puts Wood in a bind. He professes to want realism above all–well, DeLillo writes very realistic novels, if we’re judging realism as accurately representing the fabric of reality. Wood may not like the fact that ideology and paranoia often stand in for the kind of warmth and emotion that he thinks should bind people to one another (and I agree that this is an unfortunate part of our world), but he can’t just wish it away by labeling that writing inaccurate or inartistic. So which is it? Does Wood want to festishize chemistry on the page to the point that it pushes out cold reality, or does he want verisimilitude, even if it means that novels will feel cold as compared to those of another era?

But more. More. Watch how Wood crows over Zadie Smith, like a prodigal daughter returned home. Better yet, he didn’t even have to browbeat her into changing her style. No, no, she was good enough to be self-flagellating:

You ask about Zadie Smith; she’s an unusually masochistic writer. And she actually didn’t need me to prod her, she was already disowning her first book, saying that it was something written by a juvenile, a sort of crazy tap-dancing–I’m sorry, I can’t remember the exact phrase. But she did indeed reply to me, saying that she felt that “hysterical realism” was an uncomfortably precise term for the kind of thing that she was doing. She then followed her first novel with a book that seemed to me to owe a great deal to the sort of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s crowd. It was full of typographical games, numbered jokes, little boxed read-outs and so on. The third novel, just out, seems to me to really make good on her substantial talent. It’s actually a sort of old-fashioned, what you might call a sort of postmodern old-fashioned book. Postmodern because it has an explicit indebtedness to Howard’s End, but essentially old-fashioned in that it concentrates quite fiercely on the domestic of two families and so on. It’s a good book, I think.

Oh Zadie! I had thought you were lost to us! All that typographical gimmickry, all that hystericism! But you’ve recognized the error of your ways and you’ve written a nice novel fashioned on Howard’s End! And yes, you’ve remembered to include just a bit of the good old Po Mo, because it simply won’t do to write like we’re living in the 1920s, but never again so much Po Mo that you sound hysterical. Zadie, so good to have you home again. Now, off to your room, it’s just as you’d left it.

And remember, novelists, don’t go trying to figure out what the novel can’t do. Stick to what it can. Above all, avoid theory.

What the novel can do, you might define it in circular terms: it justifies itself by making an inquiry which only it can do. It doesn’t need to, I think, be infused with, and this is one of the things I don’t like about Franzen, for instance. I don’t think it needs to borrow the language, the languages of theory or cultural studies. It will make its own formal justification.

So then, I suppose novelists should stick to their pasture, theorists stick to their pasture, filmmakers stick to theirs and so on. I’m sorry, but this is a prescription for, well, for wandering around in circles. Very small ones. Especially when theory has, until recently, been outdoing the novel at noveling. From n+1 Issue 2:

Many of the [theory] classics of the era [i.e. 1970s, 80s] opened with feats of prose that American novels of the 1970s and 1980s rarely even attempted. Levi-Strauss could describe a sunset in Tristes Tropiques for longer than a sun takes to set. Foucault did fourteen pages on a single painting, Velazquez’s "Las Meninas." [For my money, the opening of Discipline and Punish, in which Foucault describes an execution in 1757, is riveting stuff.] . . .

Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society–from Bret Easton Elliss’s American Psycho? Lyotard did it better in Libidinal Economy, and was much scarier–without pornographic bloodshed. A civilization that may have punished less, but punished better, administering its surveillance from inside one’s own mind (Discipline and Punish), or replaced the real with a mediatized world of simulations (Simulacra and Simulation), or had an economic incentive to reconfigure disparate knowledge as commensurable "information" (The Postmodern Condition)–well, that was very clearly the world we lived in. Whereas the itsy-bitsy stories of sad revelations in Best American Short Stories 1989–that was some trivial bullshit.

The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a "Great American Novel" hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists.

I’d add that many of the most successful books/movies of the 1990s packaged the above material into easily digestible frameworks; obviously The Matrix is the best example here. But imagine if artists, as Wood instructs, had kept to their own pasture. Never mind the Foucault and Baudrillard, just write more about human emotions. What kind of literature would we have had in the ’90s to say nothing of the ’00s?

I just can’t see how Wood expects novelists to accurately depict the world without adopting the language and ideas of that same world. What he wants, I think, is for novelists to write about 2006 using the style and tools of 1920. But why?

I was recently told a story wherein a visitor to southern Mexico described it as "just like a magical realist novel." Each morning his hotel was packed with flowers from a local peasant salesperson and he was assaulted with odor when he opened his door. On the street a man walked a leashed lion cub. In the train station a bag started moving on its own, and when its owner later arrived he pulled out a parrot and asked the man if he wanted to buy it.

Yes, life in Latin America can be as strange as Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and life in America and Western Europe can be as strange as the minds of Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo. Even George Saunders, who writes incredibly surreal stories, has trouble outpacing postmodern capitalism. If these writers are hysterical, it’s because the society they seek to depict is certifiably insane.

Wood can go as long as he wants pretending that that’s not the case, that we all should read nice button-down novels that keep their tempers steady. He can do that, but he’ll be left behind. I’m sure he’ll read many pleasant books and find much to marvel at in their beautiful aesthetics, but as for the rest of us, we’ll be reading good books too. They just won’t be held captive to certain ideas about what a novel needs to be.

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  1. Friday Column: Proud to be Anachronistic As part of n+1‘s roundtable on American fiction, Benjamin Kunkel offers an essay on the future of the novel. It’s a good piece and he...
  2. Friday Column: Best List? No Way. When Sam Tanenhaus came on board as editor the New York Times Book Review, word was that nonfiction would take the lion’s share of the...
  3. Friday Column: James Wood Reading Quarterly Conversation contributor Barrett Hathcock made a 3-hour drive to see James Wood participate in a recent panel. He was good enough to give me...
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7 comments to Friday Column: Real Connections

  • It seems to me the connectedness that Wood is talking about is the task of making the stuff of writing human consciousness and the human condition. He might argue, and I might agree, that the most successful parts of any ‘post-modern’ books or stories is when the character and the character’s humanity (or lack thereof) is forced to deal with the world. The story of a consciousness. A laundry-list of product names and a frenetic pace is great background and tone, but the best parts of the best books are the parts about people. Even Saunders, Franzen. Certainly Naipaul and Bellow. Told with much style, but also with substance.

  • Ken,
    I agree about the consciousness part. I think this is where me and Wood share common ground.
    But he seems to be afraid of books that explore consciousness in “unsanctioned” ways. For instance, I don’t think Saunders would be much to his liking.

  • Victor

    “And that’s to say, I had been completely unmoved. There had been no transformation of feeling.”
    It seems to me that the above quote [from the interview] is the essence of what Woods is trying to point out about his reading of contemporary literary novels. Not just that he hadn’t been moved, but that the books had caused no transformation of feeling within him. That second sentence is of the greatest importance. I don’t think Woods is trying to say that writers need to stay in their little pasture, not at all, instead he’s trying to point out the fundamental task of great writing: to transform the reader on an emotional level. I doubt he’d have any problem with DeLillo or Smith or DFW if he’d felt that transformation while reading their books.
    His distinction, of transforming feelings, issues a great challenge as well. Right now I find that too many contemporary literary novelists aren’t actually shooting for transformation, they’re only interested in validating a world view they know their readers already share. Does George Saunders actually challenge any underlying beliefs in his readers? I don’t feel so. Nor does Franzen. Or Smith. The list of names could go on. In order to cause that transformation of feeling one must be surprised, challenged. But if we’re being honest most of these writers write for the same bookish, generally sentimental, somewhat liberal crowd. Isn’t that so? The only challenges most of them offer are intellectual. Which is a great feat, I’m not trying to diminish it, but it hardly meets the criteria for greatness that Woods sets out. David Foster Wallace has openly lamented this fact/possibility in recent years, wondering if it’s possible for him (and his peers) to get past detachment or irony and finally grasp real feeling in their work again. Personally, I have my doubts, if only because they seem stuck in a channel as narrow as any other genre writer and few of them seem willing to pull themselves out. Oddly, it’s in Wallace’s essays that emotional transformation occurs for me. I have yet to finish a piece of his fiction and feel as if I’ve been reading about human beings, but even his shortest essays leave no doubt. He’ll be remembered (and revered) for them much more than the novels (so speaks Carnac the Magnificent).
    The exception to this, in that crowd, seems to be William Vollmann. Vollmann is as smart(or smarter)than all the rest, just as flashy, full of tricks and so forth, but his books (almost) always have a depth of feeling, an emotional core, so powerful that it can be overwhelming. I think Vollmann is the writer who proves that it isn’t important to keep all the tricks out, but that those tricks must be used to enhance the emotional power, not to mask the fact that there’s little feeling there. This is what Woods is taking issue with, I believe. Authors who use tricks to hide the fact that they don’t really feel much for their cast. Of course, you can disagree with which authors he names, you can also disagree with the idea that emotional transformation is important to a great novel, but you flew off the handle (in my opinion) and ascribed meaning to Woods that I simply don’t see in the interview.
    Sarcasm is the all-purpose weapon our generation uses to fight back demands that we defend our views. But sarcasm isn’t a defense. You’re much too smart to think Woods is demanding verisimilitude when he talks about realism. He’s talking, clearly, about emotional realism. The idea that human beings really act, think, talk, believe in the way any author depicts them. This is where so many of the writers you name fall flat. It’s where all poor writing falls flat. The problem, I believe, is that we’ll allow writers like Updike or Murakami or DeLillo their hopelessly flat characters because their ideas are “serious.” But in a genre that’s given less respect we’ll flog this same problem mercilessly. What I appreciate in Woods is that he has an all-purpose test for good fiction: did it transform me? You might like it if he were transformed by the same works that transformed you but you don’t make much of a case for your view with snide asides.
    The Daily Show uses the same weapon. I find it funny, of course, but as time goes by it seems more and more like a way to avoid the apathy lying just underneath. These days, when I get to the end of a lot of contemporary lit fiction, both the hysterical and the non-hysterical, I actually have to ask myself: did this author really give two shits about the people in this story? Most of the time I really don’t think they do.

  • I think Wood’s take on Smith is exaggerated and a bit self-serving; she didn’t really “disown” White Teeth, but instead admitted that it’s a flawed novel, and though she said that parts of it are a bit “juvenile,” that hardly amounts to disowning the book. Plus, I’m not sure Wood fully appreciates the context in which Smith talks and writes — she’s the kind of writer who sees herself within a larger literary tradition and will often be self-deprecating and humble when comparing her novels to those of the writers she adores. The other bizarre thing about Wood’s take on Smith is that, yes, she might have admitted that “hysterical realism” is a precise term for the kind of fiction she writes, but that’s hardly tantamount to admitting that hysterical realism is a bad thing. Wood’s trying to use her as an example of the legitimacy of his concept, and this tactic just doesn’t work here.
    Regarding DeLillio, Wallace, and human connectedness — I recall one interview in which Wood said that his job was to uncover the “menaces to literature” (which is odd, because as a critic he should be illuminating literature); but I get the feeling that he’s not just afraid of the menaces to literature, but of the multiplicity of it as well.

  • “Not just that he hadn’t been moved, but that the books had caused no transformation of feeling within him.”
    Poor James. He’ll have to go around feeling all untransformed. Why is it that “feelings” are so privileged when we consider our response to works of literature? Are we just supposed to shut off our brains and let the emotions flow? How does this differ from our response to our favorite afternoon soap? How about a transformation in our understanding of what fiction might be capable of achieving? In our appreciation of form and aesthetic effect? Why are these things not as valued as a “transformation of feeling”?

  • AC

    That “transformation of feeling” criterion seems like a slippery slope — one could easily praise overly sentimental books just for the visceral reactions they inspire and neglect other kinds of literary innovation. Oh, wait, that already happens.
    Victor– which writers would you consider challenging?

  • Victor – I’m late to this argument, but if you’re still out there: Thakn you. You write in detail about an issue I’ve been thinking about only for the last six months. I was inspired in that pursuit by a Jeanette Winterson workshop – ‘write the wound’, she barked. And when a fellow student made me cry I had to examine my work and ask: why can’t you have emotional transformation and intellectual rigour? Why can’t authors and readers think and feel?
    I will follow the Vollman reference. Thank you.

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